Friday, September 30, 2016

Sheryl Sandberg's Lament

It is a truth rarely acknowledged, but a woman who knows how to manage people does not necessarily know how to teach others how to manage people The same applies to negotiation. Knowing how to negotiate does not mean that you know how to teach people how to negotiate. The required skill sets are different. No one can be all things to all people.

Yet, we again have Sheryl Sandberg telling women how to conduct themselves in complex business negotiations. We will stipulate that Sandberg herself is very good at running a business. She manages a very large and wildly successful company.

Apparently, she believes that her success has given her the right to tell other women what to do. And she believes that when her advice leads to undesirable results, the fault lies with male sexism. In other words, she thinks like zealot, one who has very little sense of reality.

One recalls that Sandberg’s friend, former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson decided one day to lean in. She strode confidently into her boss’s office and told him that he was underpaying her because she was a woman. Her boss, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. fired her on the spot.

One would have imagined that Abramson was a competent manager and negotiator. Apparently, she grossly overestimated her value to the company and did not know that her news room was in open rebellion against her, largely because of her incompetent management skills.

Her more capital mistake was driven by ideology: she decided that she should lay a guilt trip on her boss, thereby to extort a raise. By implication, she was saying that if he did not give her more money she would expose him as a sexist. He called the bluff and she was out of a job.

Proponents of leaning in do not use this case to show why leaning in is very bad advice. Instead, in recent Wall Street Journal column, Sandberg explains that leaning in works perfectly.

She writes:

A freelance film director recently described walking into a negotiation. She was ready: She had armed herself with stats and evidence and had practiced her pitch. But instead of diving into why she deserved the project—and the money that came along with it—she began with the following: “I just want to say up front that I’m going to negotiate, and the research shows that you’re going to like me less when I do.”

She could see the wheels turning in the minds of her colleagues. But she was right. When women ask for what they deserve, they often face social pushback—and are viewed as “bossy” or “aggressive” simply for asking. So she came up with a solution: Call out the bias before it could surface. It worked.

As I said, Sandberg should stick to her day job and stop trying to help women.

Limiting ourselves to the evidence she gives, this story is riddled with problems.

First, the good news. The director had armed herself with evidence of her competence and her merit. In the best cases, when you are applying for a job you should allow your track record to speak for itself. When you are selling a product you should let the product sell itself. If you are too aggressive most people will understand that your track record is deficient or that the product cannot sell itself.

Second, the not-so-good news. No one “deserves” to direct a movie. It is not a question of getting what one deserves. The woman was competing against other directors, who may or may not have been right for the job. She might have had the right sensibility. The other directors might have been incompetent. Why would you say that any of the other candidates were less deserving?

Third, the bad news. Anyone who walks into a meeting and announces that she is going to negotiate does not know how to negotiate. The woman sounds like a child playing with a new toy. Even if she gets the job, she will almost certainly not get as good a deal as she would have if she knew what she was doing.

I am sure that Sandberg knows how to do it herself, but the example she offers is simply bad negotiation tactics. The woman was abrupt and confrontational, aggressive to the point of being hostile. Apparently, she had learned a new trick from the behavioral economists—saying that they are not going to like it. This might work on some occasions. Almost anything works sometimes. But, it certainly does not work on all occasions. It is a bluff. It is posturing. As soon as the world learns to recognize it for what it is, it will fail.

We do not know whether the woman got the job because she was the best director available, because she obnoxious and assertive or whether she got the job despite her evident character flaws. One emphasizes that getting the job is not the same as doing the job. One wonders how these character traits will help or hurt her ability to do the job.

Fourth, Sandberg believes that when women ask what they deserve, they often face pushback. Again, the concept of what women deserve is a conceptual mistake. Since Sandberg has no control of her concept she does not understand that leaning in is, literally, posturing. It is macho posturing. It is bad enough when men do it but it is absurd when women do it. You do not bluff when your opponent can see your hand.

Asking for what you deserve is not the same as showing what you have done and what you can do. It seems like a demand. Sometimes it works; sometimes it does not work. If you are going to make demands, you do better to have some leverage. But even if your services are in high demand you do well to present your producers with an option and to allow them to feel that they are not being asked to bend over and to submit to your demands.

If you make someone feel that he has to submit to you, he will also feel that he needs to retaliate. It does not create a congenial work environment.

Sandberg does not understand the most elementary reason why women tend not to be confrontational, tend not to get in peoples’ faces, and prefer not to lean in. It has nothing to do with sexism but is instinctive behavior that has been hard wired into the female brain by evolution. It would not have taken too much intelligence to have figured out that over the millennia, certain behaviors lead to lower survival rates. Women who were more confrontational were less likely to survive.

This means that leaning is does not come naturally to women. It will always seem forced and fake. It is a bad negotiating tactic. It is just setting women up for failure. Of course, it produces pushback. Any time anyone gets in your face you are going to push pack. A woman will be lucky if that’s all it produces.

As a general rule, women, more than men, are likely to feel that they are not masters of the game of business. Often they simply need some guidance about how the game is played and how they can best function within the game. They need to learn how to gain the best advantage by using the talents and skills that they do have. Pretending to be a man simply does not cut it. It makes women look fake, like they are posturing.

Finally, women often have complex lives. They have more to do than to sabotage their careers by living out feminist psychodramas in the workplace. They have homes and families and want to continue to have homes and families. If they adopt a more assertive pose in the workplace they are more likely to use it in their personal relationships. And, as far as most men are concerned, a woman who leans in is not a woman they want to marry. A woman who leans in is not going to receive pushback. She will be ignored.

As a tactic, leaning in is bad for women. It is bad on the job and is bad in their private lives. Tell me why so many women think it’s such a good idea.

As for Sandberg’s constant complaint about how women do not have as many executive positions as men, has it ever crossed her brain that many women do not want to have such positions. They do not want to become like men or to pretend to be men. They might not want to do what is necessary to climb the corporate ladder. They know that career success is not good for their marriages. They might want to spend more time with their children. If Sandberg does not, that’s her choice. But, she has no right to play Pied Piper and to lead women toward a life that will not be anything like what they want.

With any luck women will assert their own good judgment by pushing back at Sheryl Sandberg.


Trigger Warning said...

"As a tactic, leaning in is bad for women. It is bad on the job and is bad in their private lives. Tell me why so many women think it’s such a good idea."

Because Sandberg says so.

Ares Olympus said...

I agree that pointing out potential biases by the person deciding is bad strategy, and it seems more likely to create resistance.

"Deserved" is certainly a very problematic word. In most cases that it is used, it contains a sense of self-pity, if someone else doesn't agree with you, someone who has the power to override your desires.

And what we "deserve" can be positive or negative. If you've been naughty, you "deserve" punishment, and the best way to punish someone is to convince them they deserve it, so they'll internalize your beliefs about them and punish themselves.

And outside of that, in the the world of zero-sum competition the "most deserved" person doesn't always win. Rather as often, in competition, without objective standards for success, winning is a popularity contest where some will be popular for innate traits they may not even be aware of, whether a deep voice, or a shapely figure as the case may be, traits that attract attention without necessarily having any virtues beyond that.

I suppose my own rule is to avoid zero-sum games, or at least ones where subjectivity determines the outcomes. In comparison a running race is objective, and I can put my pride on a good finishing time, whether that time is in the top-3 or last place, I can't control. I can choose to only compare myself to other runners my same age group, and I can also choose to compare my finish to my last race, and see if working harder produces better results.

The other trick I remember is Woody Allen's quote "80% of success in life is about showing up" so if you put in the effort to a basic competency, eventually you'll get a break, and you might even get picked over "more deserving" competitors who got injured from overtraining or just had a bad day.

Again, self-pity is the real enemy, and if you believe there is bias against you, and you are powerless to change it, that's going to create resentment. Undue assertiveness probably is bad strategy to get what you want, but it can feel temporarily satisfying and still might make for a better learning experience than trying to become a yes-man or yes-woman who cowtows to a higher person's ego and vanity in hopes of reward someday.